Jewish World Review March 14, 2000 / 7 Adar II, 5760

Y. Levy

Say (Kosher) Cheese! -- WHEN THE HISTORY of kosher food in this new century is written, it is doubtful whether U.S. Jews will be recognized either for their wine consumption or lust for cheese. Yet, kosher food industry sources say, both kosher wine and kosher cheese have made remarkable strides in the past decade, enough to have helped several kosher food companies rise to the top of the kosher food industry.

Although precise figures were not readily available, several experts with long associations with kosher cheese guessed that kosher cheese sales in the U.S. are just over $50 million. World Cheese Company, based in Brooklyn, is said to enjoy a near 70% market share, but industry sources say that they have faced some stiff competition of late.

Econophone Although the U.S. is not known for its cheese consumption, Business Trend Analysis estimated 1999 U.S. cheese sales at approximately $20.6 billion, a 3.7 percent increase over 1998 sales. They expect sales to climb another 5 percent in 2000. By 2008, the experts predict, U.S. cheese sales will approach $30 billion. One kosher food industry source said that kosher cheese sales growth was more than twice that of the national average.

The evidence is in, younger Jews are eating more cheese, despite being more health conscious. The availability of low-fat cheese has no doubt helped somewhat, but many younger Jews who are prime customers for kosher gourmet items are also buying more of the cheese and experimenting with different types of cheese.

According to the American Dairy Association, the earliest origins of cheese can be traced as far back as 4,000 years ago when an Arabian merchant journeyed across the desert, carrying a supply of milk in a pouch. “Why this man thought he could cart milk across a desert for a day, we’ll never know...but hey, we’re not complaining.” The lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey. That night he drank the whey and chewed on the cheese, and thus, so the story goes, our beloved cheese was born. Hard cheese is discussed extensively in the Talmud, including the laws pertaining to the separation of milk and meat.

In the U.S., in 1801 an enterprising cheese maker delivered a mammoth 1,235 pound wheel of cheese to Thomas Jefferson. Intrigued citizens dubbed it the big cheese, coining the phrase that has since come to describe someone of importance.

Trakdata Total natural cheese production in this country expanded from a robust 418 million pounds in 1920 to a whopping 2.2 billion pounds in 1970. By the beginning of the ‘90s, production had exploded to more than 6 billion pounds a year. Consumer demand pushed processed cheese production in the early ‘90s to exceed 2 billion pounds a year.

The dominant player in the kosher cheese business is World Cheese, owned by the Thurm family. Brothers Leo and Mayer developed their father’s passion for cheese, which he sold as a peddler during the difficult days of the 1930’s. The Thurms were right on the mark when they recognized the need for kosher cheese on these shores and slowly developed a cheese business, first from their Hudson Street location in lower Manhattan, and then from their current location in Brooklyn.

Gerd Stern, whose father Otto was an importer of fine cheeses from Switzerland, Holland and Denmark, remembers the early days of the Thurms. “They were always known as very honest and deeply devout people who lived their lives and ran their business with the blessing of rabbis.” Indeed, even today their Haolam Cholov Yisroel (higher dairy kosher standard) line is certified by Khal Adas Jeshurun, known as KAJ, or Breuer’s, the Washington Heights based Orthodox community, whose roots were in pre-War Frankfurt, Germany and who have a reputation for espousing some of the highest standards in kosher certification.

To emerge as the dominant kosher cheese company in America, World absorbed many other kosher cheese companies, including the century old Miller’s (non Cholov Yisroel). Stern and others say that World grew along with the Orthodox Jewish community, which emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust to become a major force in Jewish life. This led to its dominance in industrial kosher cheese as well. Kosher pizza stores now dot the U.S. map with the overwhelming majority of their cheese supplied by World.

While World has also been an importer of cheese from Europe and Israel, it has clearly concentrated on its own cheese brands, now primarily Haolam and Miller’s. One kosher food distributor said: “Miller’s is the Empire [referring to the dominant producer of kosher poultry in the U.S.] of kosher cheese. Wherever there is even a small section of kosher, you are apt to find Miller’s.”

The Miller’s line is certified by the Orthodox Union and includes such popular cheese as American Cheese, Muenster, Edam, Cheddar, Mozzarella, and Baby Cheese (including Gouda, Monterey Jack and some with no salt added). In recent years, Miller’s has added light and fat-free versions of the popular items. Many of these products are available to the far smaller but steadily growing Cholov Yisroel public as well as a variety of shredded Parmesan and Romano Cheeses.

In recent year’s World has faced competition from Brooklyn-based Ahava Foods, owned by Iranian born Moshe Banayan. In the late ‘80’s Banayan made waves when he sought to break the price monopoly of several Cholov Yisroel milk companies. He teamed up with New Jersey-based Farmland Dairies, who solicited the support of the Orthodox Jewish community, headed by New York City Councilman Noach Dear, in winning the right to sell milk in New York State in return for his promise to introduce cheaper Cholov Yisroel products. Marc Goldman made good on his pledge by introducing Goldman’s Milk, which Ahava distributed to the Orthodox Jewish community. The milk was heavily marketed as being of better quality and fair-priced, which soon helped Ahava expand the market even in modern Orthodox neighborhoods which previously bought non-Cholov Yisroel milk. Prices for all Cholov Yisroel soon dropped and Banayan was hailed as a hero in some circles.

Ahava next took on the giant Tropicana with his newly introduced New Square brand, which also became the brand name for his milk, when he severed ties with Goldman’s and bought his own milk production plant. His newly purchased upstate New York Lewis County Dairy soon gave him the production capacity not only for milk but for ice cream mix and cheese as well, cutting into the share of his competitors in all segments of the kosher dairy industry. Although a very old plant, Banayan slowly brought it back to life and after several managers is said to have retained a renowned and skilled manager. Industry sources say that the Thurms attempted to buy the cheese portion of the Ahava business, but Banayan refused. His Rabbi is said to have ruled that although profits were important, Banayan was to keep prices down for kosher consumers.

“The market has definitely matured,” said Banayan who also revealed that some of his cheese is manufactured in Wisconsin and that he imports some brands from Israel and France. “People today want variety and they also like to see good packaging.”

Stern and other dairy experts feel that despite the growing appetite for kosher cheese, kosher consumers in this country lag far behind their Israeli and European counterparts. Any U.S. tourist who stays in a major hotel in Israel knows that the breakfast is an experience in itself. Americans are totally taken by the sheer assortment of cheese, which is to Israelis for breakfast what cereal and bagels are to Americans.

The Israeli market, say the experts, is a far more fertile ground for gourmet cheese. In addition to giants like Tnuva, the leading Israeli dairy cooperative and the family-owned Strauss, 15-20 tiny dairies produce good cheese. A good example is the Noah brand, manufactured in the Tekoah settlement in the West Bank. Owned by Gilad Freund, an American who now makes his home in Israel, Noah sells its line of goat cheese and yogurts in Jerusalem and other major cities. Goat cheese is particularly a popular item with lactose intolerant people.

Stern said that he had imported 200 tons of goat cheese from Israel in 1995. A Chilean company Chevrita, has recently made its line of 13 different varieties of goat cheese kosher. Using recipes from France, it is manufacturing semi-hard and hard goat cheese and hopes to introduce its products soon to the U.S. market.

“There is no real appreciation for good cheese in the U.S. kosher market,” said Stern, whose now defunct Galilee company saw its sales of Tnuva cheese products grow from $40,000 in 1986 to $6 million in 1996. Prior to Galilee, World imported only a token amount of Tnuva cheese. Galilee closed three years ago when entrepreneur Mickey Schlisser who bought the company declared bankruptcy. Tnuva, which is itself under a cloud, following a company scandal that led to the demotion of its long-standing CEO, Yitzchak Landesman, and the ouster of its top management, has never resurfaced in a meaningful way in the American kosher market. The Strauss family also appears to be reluctant to enter the American market, although it is exporting its yogurt through an importer.

Israel’s appetite for gourmet cheese, including blue cheese, has expanded dramatically with the influx of more than 1 million Russian immigrants, who helped demand skyrocket almost overnight. Israel manufactures more than 100 different kosher cheese varieties. Less than 10% of France’s 600 cheese brands are kosher, but in the U.S. it is no more than 30, say the experts. In the U.S., the biggest cheese item is processed cheese, cooked with emulsifiers and waterleaves, which is not as tasty as the aged and ripened gourmet cheese in Israel or Europe.

European Jews have some interesting choices, ranging from the gourmet brands in France to the Schmerling brand (imported by World) in Switzerland. Perhaps the best kosher cheese made in the U.S., say several chefs we spoke to, is good cheddar that was made in past years and has aged properly and Muenster, a favorite with many kosher adherents. But the leading seller is the yellow and white American cheese that comes in a variety of sizes and packages.

According to kosher agencies, European-owned companies, some with plants in this country, make most of the rennet and cultures used in the manufacture of kosher cheese. “It really isn’t that much of a problem to manufacture kosher cheese,” said an official of a leading agency. Kashrus agencies, however, have toughened their standards on the whey used in cheese to insist that they come from kosher sources. They acknowledge, however, that Israel was at an advantage in Cholov Yisroel production because of much lower costs for kosher supervision than in the U.S. or Europe.

In addition to such major players as World and Ahava, kosher consumers have of late also seen smaller brands manufactured in California on store shelves. Mehadrin, which caters to the Chasidic and strictly Orthodox community, sells several cheese products in Jewish neighborhoods, particularly in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

When asked about the future of kosher cheese in the U.S., most of the experts agreed that it was a growth category. Some, however, were predicting that “it will take a great deal of educating to upgrade the taste buds of the market for the better cheeses, already enjoyed by Jews in Europe and Israel.”

Y. Levy is a staff writer with Kosher Today, the official publication of the kosher food industry. You may comment by clicking here.


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